February 4, 2013 10:02:53 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
The Columbus Police Department presented only one case to the January grand jury, but it hardly suggests a dramatic drop in crime in the city.
Among the felony arrests in 2012, officers with the CPD arrested and charged 21 people with burglary of a commercial building, cars, etc. , Fifteen people were arrested and charged with grand larceny. Five people were charged with sexual battery and five people were charged with uttering forgery. None of those major felonies, nor countless others, were presented to the latest grand jury. In fact, according to multiple sources, the one case presented in the latest grand jury was a murder charge from 2012.
The majority of those 46 people facing serious felony charges are out on bond, where they represent a potential danger to the community.
That only one case was presented stands in stark contrast to previous grand juries.
According to court records, the CPD presented 37 cases to the grand jury for the same period a year ago. The process of presenting cases to the grand jury is a necessity to continue on to circuit court.
If a grand jury believes there is enough probable cause for the case to go to trial, it continues on to circuit court. If the grand jury does not feel there is enough probable cause to proceed to court, the case is "no billed" and charges are usually dropped.
When questioned about the dramatic differences between cases presented between the January 2013 grand jury and past grand juries, McQueen said the reason could be attributed to what he calls a young, inexperienced staff of investigators.
"I looked at some of (the cases) personally and we went back to the drawing board," McQueen said. "We've got a young staff. I didn't create the situation but we've got to fix it."
Yet four of the current investigators are veterans, having worked under McQueen when he was head of the investigations division before he took over as chief in 2011. Currently, Assistant Chief of Police Joe Johnson serves as the head of ID, a situation McQueen said he is hoping to remedy.
"We have an extremely new staff and some of them were just put in," McQueen said. "That's why I'm trying to find a new head of ID and a second assistant chief."
While McQueen is quick to mention that he feels he has a young department, he was quoted as calling the department "top heavy" during one of his initial interviews for chief in 2011.
Since his appointment to chief, the department has seen a large turnover in senior staff. The majority of men and women on patrol have less than seven years of experience. In the month of January, three seasoned officers left the department: two to retirement and one to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.
One patrolman turned in his resignation and will be leaving to go to another department this month. Another veteran officer is expected to retire in March.
Even with an exodus of seasoned officers in a department that sent just one case to the grand jury, McQueen said he is not concerned.
"I'm not going to be disappointed by no means," he said. " I'm not worried about the volume of cases, I'm worried about the quality of cases. I don't care if you go and present 5,000 cases and only get one conviction, that doesn't mean a whole lot to me. I'm worried about convictions."
In the August 2012 grand jury, the CPD presented cases against Earnest Talley and Curtis Hinton, men accused of the 1997 murder of George Wilbanks. The grand jury "no billed" both cases. Talley remains in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections on unrelated charges and Hinton is living as a free man out of state.
Sources within the department, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the reason the CPD did not present as many cases before the grand jury is not because of a young department or inexperienced investigators. They claim it is because McQueen has recently insisted on examining every case himself, a practice he recently instituted. They say due to time constraints, McQueen did not have time to review every case before they were due to the district attorney's office.
In addition, McQueen has reportedly handed down a policy where either he or Johnson have to approve each search warrant before it is executed. That is not the case at the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department.
On average, the LCSD sends in between 75 and 100 cases to the grand jury each term.
McQueen insists he is doing whatever is necessary to keep his department running smoothly and boost morale, including beginning a new promotions process. However, the chief said the testing material has been lost and must be reordered. He is confident the department is on the right track.
"People are retiring, some people are leaving, some have been out sick," McQueen said. " It's just part of business but we've got a city to protect.
"We've just got to do the best with what we've got until we can do better."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.